Draw the Line: Should the police do more to protect free speech?


Free expression and policing can have an antagonistic relationship. Recent events in Ferguson are demonstrative of the issues that arise as the demands for protest clash with those for civil safety.

The police are naturally drawn to the forefront of such a debate as they become the physical manifestation of a state’s commitment to free expression and the right to protest. Thus, as the Obama administration launches a federal investigation into whether the Missouri police systematically violated the civil rights of protesters, it is prescient to ask whether one can demand more of the police to protect free expression.

Undoubtedly, enforcement agencies across the world play a tricky role in facilitating expression while protecting the legitimate safety concerns of the local community. Between 2009 and 2013, police in England spent £10 million on security arrangements for EDL marches. There can also be a huge social cost to galvanic protest and the director of Faith Matters, Fiyaz Mughal, has called for a ban on such marches, claiming that “[We] know there is a corrosive impact on communities, it creates tensions and anti-Muslim prejudice in areas. I think enough is enough. I think a banning order is necessary with the EDL”.

What the recent altercations in Ferguson illustrates is that the role of the police in safeguarding free expression must not be overlooked. More importantly, this is a global issue and as six activists being retried for breaching Egypt’s protest law have started an open-ended sit-in and hunger strike it must be remembered that this debate truly gets to the heart of the basic demands of any civic society.

As scenes from Ferguson have at times resembled the images of police crackdowns in Cairo it is clear that complacency about such issues can prove disastrous. It therefore seems vital to drawn certain lines as to where we feel the police should stand when it comes to creating the basis of a safe but also free society.

This article was posted on 11 Sept 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

Violent Mexican inauguration protests spark right to protest debate

Violent confrontations in Mexico City on 1 December between police and thousands of demonstrators protesting the swearing in of President Enrique Peña Nieto continue to reverberate, as human rights and media protection organisations grapple with how to guide protesters to exercise their fundamental free speech rights.

Protesters took to the streets to express their unhappiness at the return of Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), back in power after a 12-year interval. Windows were broken and firebombs thrown and tens of protestors were arrested. The Federal District Human Rights Commission has accused the police of making arbitrarily arrests and suggested that there is evidence that four protestors were tortured by police officers.

Rodrigo Jardón - Demotix

Thousands protest against Mexico´s new president on 1 December (Rodrigo Jardón – Demotix)

The Mexico City chapter of the freedom of expression group Article 19 has issued a safety protocol for those wishing to continue attending street demonstrations. Called a Guide to Freedom of Expression for Demonstrations, Protests and Social Disturbances, the report gives practical advice to both reporters and citizens. It suggests protesters and reporters know who organised a march and why.  It also reminds journalists and others to know the proposed routes a demonstration will take and to identify easy escape routes in case of trouble. For citizens, the guide emphasises the need to understand that, while the right to protest is fundamental, they should not respond aggressively to police during a demonstration.

The protocol comes as Mexico City learned that dozens of the 69 demonstrators arrested on 1 December — including two journalists — were released by Mexican authorities because of lack of evidence that they had engaged in violent acts. Several organisations, including Amnesty International, claimed that Mexican police used “excessive force” to curb the demonstrations, which turned violent and left demonstrators and police wounded, and local businesses damaged and looted. In a statement released on 4 December, Reporters Without Borders said:

 …the release of the photographers must not eclipse the fact that the president’s inauguration was marred by the use of heavy-handed police methods to suppress the right to demonstrate and, in some cases, the right to report the news.